It may not be the sexiest topic, but talking about sexual health is an important part of understanding fertility. By learning about the link between sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and infertility, you can better protect yourself and reduce your risk of STI-related fertility issues. So let's talk about it!
In this article:
The Evolution of Sexual Health
When it comes to your sexual health, understanding the facts and taking control of your mind, body, and soul can lead to greater satisfaction and confidence. Sexual health is the ability to embrace and enjoy one’s sexuality throughout a lifetime, and is an important part of our physical and emotional health. So before we dive in, let's check any shame or blame at the door!
When it comes to having open conversations about sexual health, we’ve come a long way. Over the years, the definition has expanded to include much more than just the typical high school health class talking points. We now have a more complete understanding that includes nuanced areas like sexual rights, pleasure, and intimacy.
Of course, taking control of your sexual health includes disease prevention and unplanned/planned pregnancies, but it also encompasses the emotional aspect of sexual health. The evolution towards more openness and transparency around this topic shows that we’re taking a more positive, proactive, and respectful approach to sexuality as a society.
STIs vs STDs: What's the Difference?
You've probably heard the term STD, which stands for “sexually transmitted disease.” However, STI stands for “sexually transmitted infection” and is the most up-to-date term used. Many educators and healthcare providers have switched from STD to STI because “infection” is more accurate and less stigmatizing than “disease.”
No matter which term you choose to use, the most important thing is understanding how to reduce your risk!
Can STIs affect your fertility?
If left untreated, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can often cause health complications and potentially affect fertility. The good news is that the most common STIs are preventable and treatable. Let’s take a closer look at the most common STIs, along with how they affect fertility and your overall sexual health.
Has your sex life tanked while TTC?
What are the most common STIs?
While there are dozens of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), the following three are some of the most common ones you should be aware of. If you've had one of these STIs in the past and have concerns about your current or future fertility, ask to have a conversation with your doctor.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common STI, with most sexually active people contracting it at some point in their lives. It occurs in both females and males and can cause certain cancers and diseases. HPV often shows no signs or symptoms, so many people don’t know that they have it. While the body can sometimes fight off the virus on its own, this isn’t always the case.
Potential Infertility Issues
HPV does not generally lead to fertility issues, though it can increase a woman’s risk of cervical cancer. The removal of cancerous or precancerous cells from the cervix is what can affect your fertility.
To best prevent HPV, doctors recommend getting the HPV vaccine and encouraging your sexual partner to do the same. High-risk HPV can usually be easily treated before it turns into cancer, which is why regular pap smears and HPV screening tests are so important. And while condoms and dental dams don’t offer 100% protection, they can certainly help lower your chances of contracting HPV.
There is currently no treatment for the virus itself, but treatments are available for side effects that may occur, including genital warts and cervical pre-cancer.
Chlamydia is a very common sexually transmitted infection caused by bacteria. It can infect both men and women and is spread easily, especially because it often causes no symptoms. The good news? Once diagnosed, this STI is easily treatable.
Potential Infertility Issues
If left untreated, chlamydia can cause women to develop pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID can have a detrimental effect on the ovaries, uterus, and fallopian tubes. The associated inflammation can cause scarring and block the fallopian tubes, leading to infertility. It can also cause ectopic pregnancy (a pregnancy that occurs outside the uterus) and increases a woman’s risk of becoming infected with HIV.
Using condoms and/or dental dams is the best way to protect yourself against chlamydia. Getting regular screenings and avoiding douching, which decreases the number of good vaginal bacteria, is also recommended.
Chlamydia is easily treated, typically with oral antibiotics or medications like azithromycin or doxycycline.
Gonorrhea is a common bacterial infection that is easily cured with antibiotic treatment. It can infect the genitals, rectum, and throat. In women, gonorrhea can also infect the cervix. It's important to note that people with gonorrhea often experience no symptoms, which is why frequent STI testing is so essential.
Potential Infertility Issues
If left untreated, gonorrhea can spread into a woman’s uterus and fallopian tubes, causing pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). Due to scarring of the tubes, PID increases the risk of infertility and pregnancy complications.
Getting regular STI screenings, having an open dialogue with your sexual partner(s), and using latex condoms are all recommended to help prevent gonorrhea.
Gonorrhea is typically cured using two drugs, intramuscular ceftriaxone and azithromycin.
How are STIs diagnosed?
It can be tricky for healthcare professionals to diagnose STIs based on symptoms alone (as there sometimes aren't any symptoms at all), so they’ll need to do some tests and exams to find the right diagnosis.
Depending on the suspected STI, that may involve:
- a physical exam
- swabs of bodily fluids
- performing bloodwork
What if I’ve had an STI? Am I infertile?
No need to panic! If you have been diagnosed with an STI, it does not automatically mean that you are infertile. First and foremost, pay close attention to your symptoms and head to your gynecologist's office to get tested and discuss your sexual health. Communication is key.
However, it’s always good to know the signs of infertility and when to seek help. If you’re under the age of 35 and have been trying to conceive for one year with no success (or if you’re over 35 and have been trying to conceive for six months with no success), this constitutes infertility.
If you fall into one of these categories, it is recommended that you see a reproductive endocrinologist. If you’re actively trying to conceive, your doctor will help you determine the appropriate path for you, such as intrauterine insemination (IUI) or in vitro fertilization (IVF). If you aren’t ready for a baby, you can discuss options like cryopreservation (freezing your eggs).
Looking for additional support?
Sexual Health, Emotions & Infertility
Talking about STIs likely isn’t getting you in the mood, but we’re here to remind you that sex is intended to be an enjoyable, pleasurable, and healthy experience between you and your partner. So…let’s talk about sex, baby.
It’s no secret that infertility can put a damper on your sex life. In fact, a study from Stanford University found that 40% of women who were categorized as infertile suffered from sexual problems, causing a great deal of physical and emotional distress. Don't be afraid to reach out to your doctor or other providers for support and resources!
Keep in mind: Emotions play a huge role in sexual health, and if you're undergoing fertility treatment, you’re likely experiencing increased psychological and physical demands that can take a toll on your relationship and sex life. When sex becomes associated with conception, it can bring up feelings of disappointment, stress, and even resentment. If you're experiencing any of those emotions, know you're not alone.
Remember that help is available to support you and your partner through this time. Supportive services like acupuncture, counseling, yoga, and nutrition programs can help reduce stress, increase connection, enhance overall wellbeing and better manage your fertility journey.
Your Sexual Health Matters
Most importantly, we’re here to remind you that knowledge is power, and that taking care of your sexual health shouldn’t be a scary thing. So, in honor of Sexual Health Awareness Month, let's get informed together, reduce the stigma surrounding sexual health, and create a healthier world for all.
Sierra Dehmler is Illume Fertility’s Content Marketing Manager - and also a fertility patient herself. Combining empathy gained on her personal journey with her professional experience in marketing and content creation, she aims to empower and support other fertility patients by demystifying the fertility treatment process.